Monday, 30 Nov 2020

Claire Trevett: Jacinda Ardern might be relieved to lose on cannabis referendum


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voted “yes” in the referendum to legalise cannabis, but may be relieved to find herself on the losing side of the issue.

In short, while Ardern might favour legalisation herself, she will have very little appetite for being the one who has to make it happen right now.

There are two reasons.

The first is Covid-19, and the second is political.

The relatively close result highlights how split society was on the issue.

Where there is a close result on such an issue, the “no change” option is the politically safer one.

Those who voted yes will be disappointed Ardern did not lend her voice to the cause when it could have made a difference, and instead waited until it was too late.

But the reason she may be relieved the “no” vote won is perhaps also one of the reasons she would not reveal how she voted earlier: the risk of alienating potential conservative voters.

She has acknowledged her historic election result was partly down to “people who had never voted Labour before” – her chosen phrase for National Party supporters who swung behind her this time round.

She had also acknowledged that a large part of that was due to her handling of Covid-19 rather than the progressive platform she stood on in 2017.

Having pledged to focus all her attentions on Covid-19, it would seem contrary if one of the new government’s first acts was to start to progress cannabis legislation – even if a referendum meant it had little choice.

Now she has got those voters, she wants to keep them. Many of them may well question whether cannabis should be a priority for her.

Nor would it be an easy, quick or quiet process.

The debate over euthanasia had already been had, and all that was needed was to push the go button on the law.

But legalising cannabis would have required legislation to be passed, including debate about the regulations that would apply, where and when and how and who could access and use marijuana.

Quite simply, it would be a distraction Ardern does not want or need.

The close result will lead to inevitable calls for at least some reform – such as decriminalisation rather than legalisation.

The result was close enough to justify those calls, and to consider it.

But if the Greens had tried to put that on the table as a contingency plan in the last day of negotiations with Ardern, it was likely flicked off again as quickly as their wealth tax idea inevitably was.

Ardern has political capital to burn, but it will not be on that.

Justice Minister Andrew Little’s initial response made it clear the Government had little appetite for getting bogged down in any such debate saying unequivocally that recreational cannabis use “will remain illegal in New Zealand”.

The past three years have seen a glut of conscience issues – abortion, euthanasia, and legalisation of cannabis – come before MPs. Ardern herself put abortion on the agenda.

Some, such as abortion, were long overdue for consideration. They had not been looked at because politicians did not want to risk a backlash. It is a credit to the last term’s politicians that they did wrestle with them.

But those three years were before Covid-19.

Covid-19 should not be an excuse to put everything else on the backburner. But it is a reason to put some things there.

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